EMMITSBURG, Md. (AP) — The freshly cut net draped around his neck like a well-fitted scarf, Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian spoke excitedly about what just might have been the perfect night.
Playing for the Northeast Conference championship at home for the first time in school history, the Mountaineers thrilled a standing-room only crowd by rallying to beat Saint Francis University 71-61 Tuesday night to earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s just really special to be able to do it here in front of your fans with a great group of guys who you love,” Christian said.
Christian never lost faith in that group of guys, even when they fell behind 31-23 at halftime after going 0 for 10 from beyond the arc and getting outscored 20-2 over a seven-minute stretch.
“He came into the locker room and said, ‘We’ve got them right where we want them,” guard Chris Wray said of his coach.
“And I meant that,” Christian said. “I just thought we were in a really good place.”
The top-seeded Mountaineers opened the second half with a 22-3 run that started with five straight points from Junior Robinson and a pair of 3-pointers from Elijah Long.
Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) coasted from there. After the final buzzer sounded, the team piled over each another at midcourt to celebrate its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2014.
Long finished with 24 points, Robinson added 22 and Miles Wilson contributed 15 points and 10 rebounds.
“We worked so hard for this, and for it to end like this is amazing,” Robinson said.
Fourth-seeded Saint Francis (16-16) reached the title game with a 71-70 semifinal win over No. 3 seed Wagner 71-70, a game decided by Keith Braxton’s 3-point shot at the buzzer.
There were no such heroics this time for the Red Flash, who got only seven points from Braxton in their bid to earn a place in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.
“I’m proud of these guys for getting to this point,” coach Rob Krimmel said.
Isaiah Blackmon led Saint Francis with 17 points. The Red Flash missed 10 of 17 free throws and was 3 for 16 from beyond the arc before hitting its last three attempts in the final minutes.
The key, of course, was the second half.
“The first five minutes was critical,” Krimmel said.
After playing catch-up for the latter part of the opening half, the Mountaineers needed only 2½ minutes to pull even at 31. Minutes later, Wilson drilled successive 3-pointers and added a layup in an 11-0 spurt that made it 45-34.
That brought the volume of the tiny arena to an ear-splitting level as they began preparing for a first-of-its-kind celebration on The Mount’s home court.
“The fans were great, the support amazing. The atmosphere was crazy,” Robinson said. “It was surreal.”
Saint Francis: The Red Flash missed 10 free throws and lost by 10 points. Do the math. “All year in the conference we were close to 75 percent. We just didn’t make them tonight. Sometimes that’s how the ball bounces.”
Mount: Robinson was 11 for 13 at the line and the Mountaineers went 18 for 22.
Saint Francis: The Red Flash finished .500, but can take solace in reaching the NEC championship game after starting the season 3-9.
Mount: Operating in relative obscurity north of Baltimore, the Mount is one of Maryland’s most successful teams. This was its fifth appearance in the NEC title game over the past decade.
Saint Francis: Season likely over, barring an unlikely invite from the CIT.
Mount: The Mountaineers will gather Sunday to learn their destination in the NCAA Tournament.
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